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Be it the Native American headdress-donning patrons of Coachella, or the questionable stances on hip-hop from white rappers like Post Malone, we’re living in a world where everybody – no matter how famous or irrelevant you are – is being held accountable for their shitty stances on cultural appropriation.
But somewhat surprisingly, the latest artist opening himself up to public scrutiny is the always likeable, ceaselessly happy Pharrell Williams. The producer, N.E.R.D frontman and now fashion designer has just unveiled the latest rendition of his ever-popular NMD Hu silhouette, and it's inspired by a Hindu festival steeped in spiritual subtext.
After a series of sell-out colorways – including a coveted rendition made in collaboration with Chanel last year that now sells for upwards of $10,000 on the resale market – his 'Holi’-inspired line has left sneakerheads excited for it to hit shelves. Meanwhile, others might be questioning why a wealthy American celebrity is pulling references from a Hindu festival he appears to have treated at face value for his own financial gain; treating it trivially to make an aesthetically-pleasing sneaker.
For this design, Pharrell said he wanted to highlight the celebratory nature of Holi, a ceremony known better as ‘the festival of colors’. Marking the transition from winter into spring, the two-day festival sees crowds of Hindu followers gather across India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh to eat, drink, and douse each other in colored dust in honor of love and new beginnings. Each color harbors its own meaning: red for purity, green for peace, yellow for knowledge and blue for bravery.
Photos and videos from the festival correctly paint it as the jubilant and joyous occasion it is. But for the many that hold its spiritual importance close to their heart, there’s a pain that stems from the fact that the hallmarks of their festival are gradually becoming capitalized by Western businesses. Recently, Holi has been cited as the inspiration for The Color Run and Color Me Rad – two commercial sporting events that turn this selfless celebration into a profitable business venture. But does that same rule apply to Pharrell’s sneaker interpretation of the famous festival?
Priced at $250, Pharrell’s Holi Festival pack arrives in three colorways: two pastel-colored, almost tie-dye renditions that look like they’ve come straight from the festival itself, and a more nuanced black pair bearing the ever-present NMD Hu embroidery; this time in what appears to be Devanagari, the script of Hindi.
adidas say the shoe is “celebrating human diversity”, and while it might be a stretch to think that a sneaker harbors that kind of cultural impact (though with the state of today’s sneaker game, anything is possible), there is something interesting about the way the release has been marketed to push that notion. Pharrell travelled to India to promote the sneaker’s launch on the ground, attending Holi himself, and dropped the shoe as an India exclusive – two weeks before the rest of the world – on the festival’s first day.
Perhaps that's why we've heard less of the 'cultural appropriation’ cries this time around. Thankfully, companies are now forced to be considerate and inclusive when it comes to how they market sneakers like the Holi NMD Hu trio. If there had been no mention of the Hindi community at all, or if the shoe hadn't been released for the South Asian market, there would certainly be a reason for public outcry.
On paper, it seems like adidas have taken all the necessary steps to make sure this wasn’t just a straight jacking of a culture that few of us know about, but there’s a somewhat excruciating video circulating on Youtube of Pharrell being talked through the significance of Holi and seemingly showing no interest in it. Whether or not his somber reaction is an indicator of how much he cares about Holi is a difficult question to answer, but tellingly, comments have been disabled for the video. Maybe he just stepped off a lengthy flight and had been thrown straight into promo for the sneaker? Perhaps he doesn’t know the camera’s rolling? Or, he could just know this all already and is begrudgingly sitting through it all being explained to him, as if he wasn’t aware of it in the first place? Either way, we’d expect an artist to at least show some sort of politeness when being handed an opportunity like that; especially when they found inspiration in a religious festival that so many of adidas’ western customers might have not too strong an understanding of past what Pharrell has presented to them.
So how, in this day and age, do we deem something like the color of a sneaker an example of 'cultural appropriation’ without being seen as reading into something too closely, or causing hysteria for no reason? After all, there's a distinction between the straight up culture-to-commodity process we've seen other artists adopt when it comes to their ‘appreciation’ of other cultures and what Pharrell has done with the Holi NMD Hu. It’s worth considering why he’s the kind of artist who’s getting off scot-free for doing something that many others, in similar circumstances, might be lambasted for, and it seems like the simple answer is this: Pharrell has a track record for mixing his creative career with philanthropy.
Whether that’s his ‘From One Hand To Another’ program, which exists to help young people meet their creative potential through access to better education, or his G-Star RAW collaboration “RAW for the Oceans”, that turned plastic that polluted the sea into cool and conscious streetwear, Pharrell has always liked to to put his name to positive projects. In this instance, it would’ve been easy for him to shed the ‘Holi’ name attached to his latest drop and claim it as his own invention. To be honest, if it weren’t for the Devanagari script, nobody would’ve noticed. And it's important to note that the Holi sneaker is but the latest in Pharrell's "Human Race" project, which aims to highlight multiple cultures that would normally be overlooked. Just this past December, a colorway of the NMD was unveiled that featured Japanese lettering, and it seems that an African culture is in line to follow the Holi sneaker.
His ‘exploration’ of Hindu culture doesn’t feel overly invasive or exploitative. Instead, the three drops keep just enough distance from their source material to invite those who might not know much about Holi to look into it a little more. Compare this colorful sneaker to the idea of Alessandro Michele placing turbans on almost exclusively white models for his Gucci FW18 show, or Miley Cyrus, as New York Magazine critic Jody Rosen puts it, “annexing working-class black 'ratchet' culture [for] her reinvention”, and we have a greater understanding of where the line between cultural homage and appropriation lies. For the ‘Holi’ drop, it seems Pharrell is toeing on the right side of it.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.